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Al Eisele Headshot

Tommy John: The Man With the Golden (Reconstructed) Arm

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Note to Major League Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig: I really don't get it.

Robin Roberts, the Philadelphia Phillies pitcher who died in May, was elected to baseball's Hall of Fame after winning 286 games (and losing 245) for the Phillies and three other clubs over 19 seasons while posting a career earned run average of 3.41.

Yet Tommy John, who won 288 games (and lost 231) for the Cleveland Indians and five other teams over a 26-year major league career while posting an ERA of 3.34, and gave his name to the arm surgery that changed baseball forever, not only isn't in the Hall of Fame, but can't even find a job coaching in the Major Leagues.

In fact, John won more games than 39 of the 59 pitchers enshrined in Cooperstown, including such greats as Bob Feller, Sandy Koufax, Whitey Ford, Bob Gibson, Catfish Hunter, Fergie Jenkins, Juan Marichal, Jim Palmer, Jim Bunning and Don Drysdale. He appeared in more games than all but five of the Hall of Fame pitchers with 700 starts and 60 relief appearances, and won 164 games after his 1974 surgery, only one fewer than Koufax won in his entire career.

To add insult to injury, syndicated columnist and inveterate Chicago Cubs fan George Will wrongfully accused him of cheating. In an April 4 column, Will wrote that John, who is ranked seventh all-time in victories among lefthanders and has the most wins by any pitcher not in the Hall of Fame, was guilty of violating baseball's unwritten code of disrespecting opponents and the game.

"Cheating by pitchers often operates under a 'don't ask, don't tell' code," Will wrote. "When George Steinbrenner demanded during a game that Yankees manager Lou Piniella protest that Don Sutton of the Angels was scuffing the ball, Piniella said, 'The guy [Tommy John] who taught Don Sutton everything he knows about cheating is the guy pitching for us tonight.'"

I sent the column to John, who was my teammate in the Cleveland Indians' farm team in Charleston, W.Va., in 1962 - Luis Tiant and Sonny Siebert were also teammates. John, 67, now works for a sports promotion company in Arlington, Texas, after stepping down last July as manager of the Bridgeport (Conn.) Bluefish in the independent Atlantic League, where he had a less-than-stellar record of 159-176 over two years. At the time, he said it was "strictly a monetary decision" as his salary had been cut by 40 percent.

Personal aside: I saw the Bluefish beat the York (Pa.) Revolution 4-1 in Bridgeport on July 10 while visiting my daughter and son-in-law. Both teams are managed by players who faced John many times - Bridgeport's Willie Upshaw while playing for Toronto and Cleveland, and York's Andy Etcheberran while playing for the Baltimore Orioles and Los Angeles Angels. (How's this for baseball trivia? Etcheberran was the last batter to face Koufax, when he hit into a double play in the second game of the 1966 World Series.)

Anyway, John sent the following email to Will, noting that Will's favorite team, the Chicago Cubs, were also his favorite team while growing up in Terre Haute, Ind.:

"My former teammate in the Cleveland Indians minor leagues, Al Eisele, sent me an article about me that you wrote sometime ago. It was about 'scuffing' the baseball. To set the story straight, The Boss did call down to the dugout to complain that Sutton had a piece of tape on his hand and was 'doctoring' the baseball... Lou Piniella came to me and told me he was going to go to the umpires to tell them of the Boss's fears.

"My response was that Sutton was just doing that to have fun on TV. He needed a post-baseball career. As the story evolved, Lou came up with his humorous thoughts, but at the time the humor wasn't there. As time went on and as all old timers try to recall the events of the day, things get fuzzy and distorted. IT JUST NEVER HAPPENED THE WAY PINIELLA SAID. But makes for a good laugh."

John added, "As someone who voted for Sarah Palin, how could I do what Piniella said I did!!!!! ... I really enjoy reading your columns but only if I have my Roget's with me. Keep up the good work and hopefully, our paths will cross in the future."

Ironically, John played with Sutton, who is in the Hall of Fame, on two teams, the Dodgers and Angels. John was the oldest player in the Major Leagues when he retired in 1989 after his second stint with the Yankees. He said he decided it was time to hang up his spikes when Mark McGuire, the son of his dentist, got two hits off him. "When your dentist's kid starts hitting you, it's time to retire," he said.

John failed to get enough votes from the baseball writers for induction into the Hall of Fame on his 15th appearance on the ballot in 2009 with only 31.7 percent of the required 75 percent. It was his last year of eligibility, but he could still be selected when the Veterans Committee, composed of Hall of Fame members, votes this fall.

Apparently, the knock against John was that he fell short of the magic number of 300 wins and never played on a world championship team - he was with the Dodgers when they lost to the Yankees in the 1977 and 1978 Series and with the Yankees when they lost to the Dodgers in 1981. But he made four appearances in the All Star Game and pitched 4,710 innings and struck out 2,245, more than those of baseball immortals Grover Alexander, Dizzy Dean, Lefty Gomez and Hal Newhouser.

John was pitching for the Dodgers in 1974, and had a 13-3 record when he ruptured the ulnar collateral ligament in his pitching arm. Shortly afterwards, Dr. Frank Jobe performed the revolutionary surgery that replaced the damaged ligament with a tendon from his right forearm, and after sitting out the 1975 season, he won ten games for the Dodgers in 1976 and was named National League Comeback Player of the Year.

Since then, more than a hundred pitchers who've appeared in the big leagues have salvaged their careers by having the surgery that bears John's name, including Chicago Cubs fireballer Kerry Wood, who said he threw harder after the surgery than before. Take that, George Will.

If Tommy John doesn't belong in the Hall of Fame, I don't know who does.

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